Cadets Serve the Community

A cadet reads to elementary school students.

Kristian Perez ’19 reads to Sandy Nye’s kindergarten class at Natural Bridge Elementary School on April 4. – Photo courtesy of Sandy Nye.

LEXINGTON, Va., April 13, 2017 – During the first weekend of April, hundreds of Virginia Military Institute cadets fanned out to over a dozen locations in Buena Vista, Rockbridge County, Lexington, and Covington and worked hard for their community.

While the ROTC commissioning cadets leave VMI’s post for military training each spring, those not pursuing a military career participate in various volunteer and charity projects. Of the non-commissioning cadets, about 200 volunteered locally and over 200 cadets volunteered out of state.

One of the biggest projects this year was the VMI Timber Framing Guild’s construction of a pavilion for Parry McCluer High School. Seth Hinton ’17 enlisted 42 cadets for this massive project.  In addition to the cadets, guild members and friends of the family of Col. Grigg Mullen, VMI professor and adviser to the Institute’s guild chapter, participated in orchestrating the project. 

By the end of the project, the high school students got to enjoy a brand new pavilion made entirely from scratch; every piece was cut, carved, and assembled by hand, and a few of the members even went out prior to FTX to cut down and strip trees.

While these cadets were using their craft skills to build a new pavilion, others were in the forest rebuilding the trails.

Cadet Mitch Dannon ’17 coordinated a trail rehabilitation project with VMI professor Bruce Summers to improve the trails in the Mt. Pleasant National Scenic Area. Dannon and a group of cadets worked with the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club and the U.S. Forest Service to bring the most valued trails back to life.

The cadets installed stone steps on steep parts of the trails, regraded trail sections, removed impeding boulders, and created rock structures to control water erosion. During this project, VMI cadets handled most of the heavy lifting, while the NBATC provided advice and guidance based on their expertise.

Summers described the cadets as “disciplined, focused, energetic, and great co-workers.” Summers also explained that the work that the cadets did during the time of FTX, would have taken NBATC and the U.S. Forest Services months, if not years, to complete on their own.

On Saturday of FTX about 250 athletes of all ages came to VMI to participate in the 2017 Special Olympics, supported by over a hundred cadets from all four classes. Rachel Kroner ’17 opened the day with a ceremony dedicated to the participants and their families. Following the ceremony, the athletes moved to various locations to perform in track and field, swimming, and basketball events.

Each day of FTX, Jordan Drake ’18, took 24 cadets to Fairfield to assist Brenda Spillers and Eddy Zwart remove brush and replace fences on the 32-acre site of what will be a non-profit, therapeutic horse training center called Spirit Horse.

According to Spillers, the cadets accomplished in three days what would have taken them a year to do on their own. The cadets involved grew close to the founders of Spirit Horse and enjoyed a big lunch spread and rode the horses on their last day.  Ms. Spillers called the cadets “a part of the [Spirit Horse] family!”

Henry Atwill ’18, took charge of the Ducks Unlimited Club that went out to four separate locations with 14 cadets. They assembled duck boxes along the Maury River and prepared several sites for box installation in Bath County. From there, half of them traveled to Ringgold, Georgia, to work with wildlife management on duck habitat improvement while the other half of the group helped restore the Mackay Island Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach.

The VMI Fishing Club spent two days at Moore’s Creek State Forest continuing a project that was started last spring to improve the stream habitat for trout. The trout population in Moore’s Creek was dwindling because parts of the creek were too shallow to support a reproducing trout population. Jacob Novak ’18 and 20 other cadets built natural structures to increase the water depth and flow.

On April 1, five cadets went to Harrington Waddell Elementary School to help prepare the Roots and Shoots Garden for the school, and 14 more cadets arrived on Sunday. They filled elevated beds with manure, leaf mulch, and topsoil, and after all that, they mulched the walkways between the beds. All of this was done to provide the Kindergarten through Third Grade students with an interactive garden to work in and learn from.

Heather Marion, one of the women in charge of the project, sent the cadet in charge an email in which she exclaimed that the “tireless effort” from the cadets was greatly appreciated and that they were “a joy to work with!”

For three days in a row, 12 cadets worked at the Lime Kiln to clean it up, renew the features, and get it ready for the upcoming season.  The work included painting the wooden benches, tearing down old rotted posts, and revitalizing the land after a long winter season.

The VMI Firefighting Club visited the South River Division Volunteer Fire Department to work with fire fighters and the response crew, and responded to three EMT calls and a mutual aid call for a house fire.

Four cadets, William Harris ’17, John Camarella ’19, Ian Morris ’19, and Zachary Thoele ’19 also attended classes and earned their Firefighter 1 and 2 certifications. Between calls and classes, the same cadets, and Charles Wilson ’19, learned more about some important firefighting tools, including how to use a drop tank and properly hook up a fire hydrant.

Cadets also made appearances at the Natural Bridge Elementary School, Harrington Waddell Elementary School, Central Elementary School, and Mountain View Elementary School. Cadets at Central Elementary School revitalized the garden, turned and fertilized soil, edged sidewalks, and cleaned up the area in order to provide a lively and encouraging learning environment. In the morning, before starting their work, the cadets got the opportunity to interact directly with the students and serve as positive role models.

At Natural Bridge Elementary School, each cadet was assigned to a classroom to assist the teachers and collaborate with the children. When Cadet Duncan Naylor ‘18 was asked if the project was worth the time they put in, he responded, “Absolutely. Out of everything that we did over FTX, this experience was the best. It was the most redeeming because of the impact we had on the children.” He also mentioned that on the ride back to VMI, the other cadets “could not stop raving about the experience.”

Not only did VMI cadets accomplish all of these local projects, the Institute also had cadets helping from Texas to New Jersey. In total, there were Keydets in 15 states working on individual projects they submitted for approval before being sent out to other communities. One group of football players put in hard labor improving the Carolina Beach Wildlife Preserve, while another group spent time at the Suffolk Art Center. VMI had cadets volunteer at YMCA facilities, Salvation Army facilities, animal shelters, churches, nursing homes, hospitals, and hospice care centers. 

– A. Marlene Haag ’18

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